New Haven’s blue and yellow-clad Downtown Ambassadors could soon help patrol neighborhoods throughout the city as part of a new crime-fighting idea discussed at a March 20 meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s public safety committee.
Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04, who pitched the idea, said adding “ambassadors” — non-sworn individuals charged with assisting locals and tourists — could provide a cost-effective means of increasing patrols and community engagement in the policing districts beyond downtown. While Hausladen, who sits on the public safety and finance committees, has not formally proposed the measure to the Board, business owners said they would welcome the expansion of the ambassador program. Other city officials, however, said the idea should be scrutinized further before it is implemented.
“What everybody wants is the ability to walk up to an officer and interact with them as a human, and so the shorthand for that is they want walking beats, which are very expensive,” Hausladen said. “But if we deploy our ambassadors on a neighborhood level, and give them appropriate training and radios to get in touch with the police dispatch, we’ll have another way of reaching out and protecting the community at much lower cost.”
Currently the Town Green Special Services District hires 15 Downtown Ambassadors. The ambassadors secure the city center and provide “hospitality and safety” services, said Town Green Special Services District head Win Davis.
Together, the ambassadors and New Haven Police Department officers on the downtown walking beat — rolled out in December under the supervision of district manager Lt. Rebecca Sweeney — have provided a “very visible” presence in the area, Hausladen said.
On March 8, the Chapel West Special Services District contracted to have ambassadors farther west on Chapel Street six days a week, he added.
By expanding the program out to the city’s neighborhoods beyond the downtown area and equipping the ambassadors with radios connected to the police department, Hausladen said the police could enhance its relationship with the community at a relatively low cost. The Downtown Ambassadors are currently paid a starting wage of $9.75 an hour, Davis said.
Hausladen said he hoped the expansion would be considered alongside Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s budget proposals for additional police funding.
In his March 1 budget proposal, DeStefano asked for an extra $2.7 million in the city’s budget for the next fiscal year to finance NHPD Chief Dean Esserman’s strategic plan for the department — which calls for 40 walking beats throughout the city’s neighborhoods, fully staffs car patrols and increases personnel numbers — as he seeks to revive community policing in the Elm City.
Hausladen and Ward 29 Alderman Brian Wingate, chair of the Board’s public safety committee, said they were still not entirely sure where the money for DeStefano’s proposed police budget would come from. The initial expansion to 467 officers is already budgeted by the city, while DeStefano said the addition of 30 officers over the next three years would be possible thanks to the city’s projected $7.5 million increase in property tax revenue and other savings in administrative expenses.
Wingate said he would also have to “take a very close look at” Hausladen’s idea to ensure that it balances cost-savings with public safety.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t have some reservations about the idea,” Wingate said, explaining that ambassadors in the city’s neighborhoods might encounter “safety issues.”
Six downtown business owners interviewed Monday said they believe the ambassadors play a useful role in the area and that expanding their presence to other neighborhoods would help to improve public safety throughout the city.
“Even though the ambassadors don’t really have the authority to do anything like the police do, it’s good to have another set of eyes,” said Rob Muller, the owner of Merwin’s Art Shop on Chapel Street. “I’m not sure what it would cost to [deploy the ambassadors around the city], but it’s good to have a foot presence on the ground, and it makes a big difference to give and take with the community.”
While 20 NHPD officers are currently on walking beats citywide, that number will double to 40 by the end of the year under the strategic plan Esserman announced late last month.